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Malin Lewis – Halocline, a review

Discover Malin Lewis' sublime Halocline, a masterful blend of traditional Scottish music and innovative 3D-printed instruments. Review by Gavin McNamara.

Malin Lewis, a queer folk artist, stands on a beach with eyes closed, wearing a unique crown made of seashells and birch bark. The crown, resembling a headdress, features large scallop shells and vertically arranged bark pieces, evoking a natural yet majestic appearance. The ocean and a cloudy sky form the backdrop, enhancing the serene and artistic vibe of the scene.
Release Date
3 May 2024
Malin Lewis - Halocline
Malin Lewis’ debut album, Halocline, showcases exceptional traditional instrumental music. Lewis, a talented bagpiper and instrument maker, plays a self-made, 3D-printed bagpipe on this album. Their music, deeply rooted in Scottish tradition, blends innovative sounds and intricate melodies, reflecting the landscape and culture of Ardnamurchan and Skye. A sublime album, Halocline exemplifies the artistry in overlooked genres, deserving of broader recognition and appreciation.

Just the other day, Sam Sweeney took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that instrumental traditional music is not appreciated in this country. He was quick to point out that he did not mean “classical” music, or jazz. The implication was that the sort of music he plays and that, hopefully, we love is repeatedly sidelined. He has a point, of course. How many times are we told that the latest “song”-based band are the ones to watch? How many brilliant albums are missed just because there’s no catchy vocal to sing along to? Why don’t as many people own Escape That as Hedonism

Sweeney’s head scratching could easily have been prompted by the likes of Malin Lewis’ debut album, Halocline. Lewis is a bagpiper, a genius of the small pipes, a fiddler and an instrument maker from Ardnamurchan and Skye. On this quietly extraordinary album, they play a newly invented, 3D-printed, self-made bagpipe (based on the 2-octave version of the Scottish small pipes) and make some of the most beautiful instrumental music that 2024 has given us.

Halocline starts with a deep inward breath, Lewis’ pipes are gathered for ‘Hiraeth’ and they blur and hum and drone with all of the flavours, all the scents of a Scottish hillside. Lucy McNally’s electric guitar shimmers in the background, a sun reflected across the stillness of waters, and the two summon distant, barely perceptible, bird calls. A mist of brass falls delicately as a voice can be heard, arriving on the breeze. It is wordless and belongs to Maija Kauhanen. Wordless it may be but the voice becomes another instrument, another vehicle for atmosphere and tone. 

While ‘Hiraeth’ shows us a longing for home, ‘Trans’ is a sure-footed assertion of individuality. Lewis, again, starts on the pipes, establishing their world, increasing the pace until they are joined by McNally’s strummed acoustic. There’s something of Kris Drever about the propulsion of the guitar, the way that it pushes the pipes to reach further, creates a tingle of festival-tent electricity. A fiddle is swirled in and then Matthew Herd’s saxophone rises, majestically, through the whole thing. A warrior’s sword held aloft, emerging from water. 

This sense of the pastoral is taken further by ‘Cycle Lane’ as hedgerows and hamstring-busting hills are easily conjured. A quivering fiddle, pipes and guitar slowly ascend, pushing cyclical patterns until the crest is reached and feet are removed from pedals. The music freewheels, each instrument picking up speed until another incline is hit. The muscles sing another wordless song, an exaltation to freedom.

As Halocline unfolds, Sweeney’s concerns about instrumental music become even more difficult to fathom. There is, I think, a genuine correlation to be drawn between this kind of traditional folk music and the Shoegaze scene that seems to be fashionable once again in indie circles. ‘Luna’s’ has that glacial twinkle that Slowdive and Cocteau Twins have, there’s the textured world-building too as Lewis layers pipes and a whistle on top of guitar and drums. If the idea of Shoegaze is to transport, to romanticise and to dumbfound, so this gorgeous folk music does all of those things, too. ‘A Clearing’ churns slowly, a Scottish evocation built on a drone, electronic burbles and the echo of a guitar (tell me, again, how that’s so different from Shoegaze?). It’s powerful, instrumental music which carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. There are times when those self-made pipes sound as though they are crumbling as they are played; sound as though they are loam blown through fingers. 

Much of Halocline is rooted in Scotland and a Celtic tradition – ‘The Old Inn’ brings to mind peaty pub sessions in its slow swoop – but ‘Elision’ brings something else. Built around two Bulgarian Kopanistas, there is an excitable, dance edge to this tune. Almost untethered at some stages, as fiddle, pipes and guitar twirl about madly. There is joy, an unfettered celebration of place, of belonging, of togetherness. ‘You Are Not Alone’ continues that sense of place. Written by Estonian jazz guitarist, Marek Talts, Lewis bends the notes on his pipes all over the place. There may be a drone but the violin kicks up its skirts for one final expression of individualistic jubilation. As the album starts with a drawing in of breath, ‘You Are Not Alone’ is an exhalation, the circle is complete.

Sweeney is almost certainly right. Traditional instrumental music is overlooked on these Isles and it is a travesty. The musicians that we have are extraordinary, deserving of our time, our respect and our ears. Sweeney is, undoubtedly, one of them but, so too, is Malin Lewis. Halocline is a truly remarkable record. 

Halocline by Malin Lewis was released on May 3rd and can be ordered from Hudson Records. Catch Malin Lewis on the Tradfolk Takeover Stage at FolkEast 2024.